Two minutes remained, India – trailing by a goal – earned a corner, and Adil Khan headed it home. The 31-year-old defender sprinted towards the corner flag, thumping his chest and engaging the crowd. A few minutes later, Khan and rest of the Indian players lined up in front of a section of fans behind the goal of the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata and performed the Viking Clap, the loud chant of ‘huh’ accompanied with a single clap. Looking at those celebrations, one could’ve been forgiven for assuming India had rolled over their opponents, ranked 83 places below them, when actually it was the other way round.
Bangladesh did not exactly rollover India, the match ended 1-1, but they very nearly pulled off a seemingly impossible result. When the groups for the 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup joint qualifiers were drawn, it was widely assumed India would pocket six points from the two matches against Bangladesh. It was a prediction based on form, reputations – on paper at least – and past results.
Apart from a win over Afghanistan in 2008, Bangladesh hadn’t beaten any of the Group E teams – India, Oman and Qatar. Their chief coach, Jamie Day, was the assistant manager of a club in the fifth tier of English football. A majority of their players in the starting 11 were aged 19 or 20 – and without much experience of playing at this level.
Goalkeeper Ashraful Rana’s body of work, as per his Wikipedia page, is making debut in 2015, making10 against UAE in a friendly in 2016 and being anointed as the captain in the same year. Forward Mahbubur Rahman’s biggest achievement to date was leading his former club Arambagh KS to its first-ever local league title in Dhaka.
Surely this ragtag bunch of players did not stand a chance to beat a team coached by a World Cupper who played a vital role in helping Croatia qualify for the 2014 edition, and comprising players who play ‘Asia’s fastest-growing’ league?
Well, they almost did. Khan’s late equaliser made sure India did not lose the match. But they did lose face. The 1-1 draw means India are still in search of their first win of the qualifiers. The two draws and a defeat from their first three matches leaves them fourth in the five-team table, a point ahead of Bangladesh and a point behind Afghanistan, whom they face next on November 14 at a neutral venue in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. India have been on a high ever since holding 2022 World Cup hosts and Asian champions Qatar to a goalless draw at their home in their previous match a month ago. On Tuesday, though, Igor Stimac’s side were a shadow of what they have been in the opening two matches. There wasn’t a single redeeming feature in India’s performance – they were fragile and unsure at the back, absent in the middle and toothless upfront. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu failed to collect a harmless cross from a free-kick, which was headed in by Saad Uddin in the 41st minute. Khan and his Anas Edathodika – playing in place of Sandesh Jhingan who is out for six months with an injury – left the goal exposed so frequently that Bangladesh had a couple more shies at the Indian goal. If they were a little sharper – and if not for Khan’s goal-line clearance midway through the second half – they could have pulled off a coup.
When India had the ball, they were slow and sluggish. They tried attacking from the wings, as is their style, but Udanta Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan weren’t having the best of the nights. And the strategy to hoick the ball forward towards Sunil Chhetri and Manvir Singh, ineffective as always, meant Anirudh Thapa and Sahal Abdul Samad could not impact play.
Chhetri was off-color, which is never great news for India given that no other striker is reliable. Bangladesh didn’t dominate possession, but they did just enough every time they had the ball. India, on the other hand, had a lion’s share but conjured up precious little.
The players lacked energy and looked fatigued. The poor fitness is partly attributed to the lack of match practice – the league got over seven months ago and the players have largely been in national camp with a match or two in between. While that is a major issue, you’d still expect India to beat Bangladesh, who have played fewer competitive matches than India.
The 1-1 draw goes against the recent run of the national team, which has seen them notch up respectable performances against some of the continent’s heavyweights. How the team reacts to this setback against a tricky Afghanistan next month will be crucial. It might not be a defeat, but this result will throw up troubling questions for the coach and players.